Galal Amin on Sexual harassment and religion

Sexual harassment is definitely an issue in Egypt but it’s relatively tame, especially when compared to other countries; mainly due to religion; it stops people from getting too far. That was more or less was Galal Amin’s initial response to a question about sexual harassment during a discussion of his book Whatever Happened to the Egyptians this month.

Galal Amin

Galal Amin at his house in Maadi, October 2007. By Sarah El Sirgany.

But what I like about Galal Amin – who I hade the pleasure to interview twice – is that he’s willing to reconsider his opinions if presented with new evidence, factors or arguments. And that’s exactly what happened at the discussion.

Amy Mowafi, Enigma editor and author of Fe-mail: Trials and Tribulations of Being a Good Egyptian Girl, interjected, comparing London to Cairo. While catcalls are rare in the former, they are abundant in the latter. And it has nothing to do with clothes or neighborhood. Crossing the street to get coffee, she said, is an adventure.

After a bit of back and forth, with Amin saying that difference in social class could also be a factor in harassment, he finally agreed acknowledging that he might not have the full picture when it comes to sexual harassment.

However, the reason why I’m writing this is that I completely disagree with his initial answer. While I didn’t get the chance to discuss it with him that day and might do that later, let me explain it here first.

First of all, sexual harassment here isn’t tame, whether we are talking verbal or physical harassment.

Secondly, religion, or rather skewed religious discourse propagated by some ignorant “preachers”, is largely responsible for harassment.

Recently, many ‘sheikhs’ have become apologetic and reasonable about harassment – not in a good way. Suddenly, many have become sociological experts who can give many reasons why men resort to sexual harassment: decadent video clips, the internet (in the broad sense of the word), and most importantly what women are wearing. I remember reading an interview for one specifically blaming “jeans el mohgabat” (veiled women who wear jeans, presumably tight ones).

But rarely do I hear sheikhs saying harassment is haram, forbidden, un-Islamic, you do it you go straight to hell, etc.

What’s appalling is that many of these sheikhs frown on a handshake between a man and a woman. Some go as far as saying it’s haram. Well, a handshake is pretty much consensual and quite harmless, but there aren’t a lot of those spouts of reason or sociological analyses there.

Even if we go beyond the handshake to the issue to which pages of magazines and newspapers have been dedicated, the issue responsible for many bad Egyptian films that plagued the screens throughout the 1980s and the 1990s: urfi (unregistered) marriages.

Again, it’s consensual and has a well of social factors behind it. But there are no sociologist sheikhs here, trying to find reasons, or rather excuses for the young men and women involved. For the most part, there is a consensus that urfi marriages are haram, forbidden, un-Islamic, you do it you go straight to hell, etc.

Although such tone hasn’t brought down the number of such marriages or affairs, but still I can’t help but when wonder: Where’s this clear cut tone when it comes to harassment?

The logic is: if consensual non-sexual physical contact is haram or frowned upon (best case scenario), then non-consensual, sexual physical contact must be hell-material, right?

Teenagers that inspire the world

Over the past week, I came across two stories of two teenagers who battled the odds to bring innovative solutions to problems plaguing their communities.

The first is of William Kamkwamba, from Masitala, Malawi. At the age of 14, when he was forced to leave school because his family didn’t have the money to pay for his education, he built a windmill. He saw the picture in a book in the village library and used materials he found in a scrap yard to build the electricity-generating structure.

At the time Kamkwamba could barely understand English and mainly relied on diagrams to learn about sciences. At the time Malawi was hit by a famine that brought his village and his family to the brink of starvation.

Now at the age of 22, after receiving funds to finish his secondary education and helping build other windmills in his village, Kamkwamba has chronicled his journey in the book The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind with the help of journalist Bryan Mealer. Kamkwamba is now studying for his SAT to continue his education in the US.

Jon Stewart interviewed Kamkwamba about his book on Oct. 7.

The second story is of Babar Ali, a 16-year-old from Murshidabad in West Bengal, India. Ali is dubbed by BBC as the world’s youngest headmaster. Being one of the privileged few in his village to receive an education, Ali has decided since age 9 to share this privilege.

Every day after returning from school, he teaches other kids in the village, who can’t afford schooling, what he had learnt earlier in the day. Over the years, this project has sprawled to include 800 kids of all ages, sometimes illiterate adults, and 10 other student-teachers. The make shift school is Ali’s family’s backyard.

Here’s a link to the BBC story, part of the Hunger to Learn series.

It’s this evident ‘hunger to learn’ that was so inspiring in both stories. Kamkwamba wasn’t deterred by his family’s inability to pay for his education when he was 14. In India, 800 kids are seeking an education – not a degree – by going to this makeshift school, usually after a long day of work, thanks to an initiative by 16-year-old Ali.

Hell Physics + South Park + Discrimination = My Niqab Stance

Back in college, I got one of those forwarded emails about a physics exam with question about hell: whether it absorbs or gives off heat. The brilliance of one student, which prompted the circulation of the email, was reflected in the starting hypothesis.

After concluding that once a soul enters hell it won’t leave, he stated the following: “Some of these religions state that if you are not a member of their religion, you will go to hell. Since there are more than one of these religions and people do not belong to more than one religion, we can project that all people and all souls go to hell.”

He then proceeded to calculate the mass of hell based on that assumption. I was glad to find different versions of that email still floating around. You can find them here, here and here.

This email, which I got when I was 17 or 18, got me thinking about the possibility of being wrong. Not doubting my beliefs, but the fact that we can’t all be right. How the satisfaction that we are right and everybody else is wrong, which is the corner stone of any faith, could sometimes be meaningless in everyday life.

Take the South Park episode about afterlife for example. Supposedly people of all faiths are resurrected but find that they are standing at the gates of hell. They start shouting: I’m (Jewish/Christian/Muslim/etc), I’m right, I should be in Heaven. Eventually they start asking the inevitable question: “Who was right?” A stuttering man looks at some papers and answers: The Mormons, The Mormons were right.

The idea, I guess, was that all those people spent their lives on the sole hope that they’ll be awarded for being right without actually trying to live together.

The point is: it’s all relative when it comes to religion. There’s no point trying to get others to conform to your own ultimate truth. But you can always find common grounds that allow peaceful coexistence.

It’s this, among other encounters, that led me to firmly support the rights of other people to practice things I don’t believe in. Things that might seem ridiculous.  Individual choices. Differences. All these things, as long as there is no harm inflicted on me or others.

Sometimes it needs having your own beliefs dismissed as ridiculous by some people who claim intellectual superiority to empathize with those who face discrimination on a daily basis. I’m grateful I was put in such situations repeatedly, because it prompted me to have a firm stance when it came to violations of individual freedoms, regardless of how I feel about the action/practice in question.

I wrote an article in support f niqab based on this belief for Daily News Egypt. I got a number of mixed responses. I realize that some of those who voiced their agreement with what I wrote might have done so because the issue of niqab wasn’t far off from what we grew up learning in Egypt. Some might not support this theory if the practice in question is new to our society and its customs. Something difficult to stomach.

And even though I might be struggling too, this theory about accepting differences even if it contradicts with our understanding of religion is applicable in all fields. The right for a woman to wear the niqab is the same as the right of another woman to wear a short skirt or a bikini. As much as the first woman doesn’t want anyone telling her to take off the niqab or harass her because of it, the second woman doesn’t want anyone to tell her to put on a longer skirt or harass her because of it.

We don’t live in a perfect world, but we should try.

Here’s part of the article, which disagrees with Rania Al-Malky’s editorial, but she’s the one who suggested I write mine to present all points of view in the paper:

CAIRO: We live in a world with so many gods and sometimes with no god at all. Even those who pride themselves on worshiping the same god do so each in their own way. The many faiths and sets of beliefs render any discussion of what’s religiously right or wrong irrelevant.

But as social animals we don’t live in a perfect world. Reading the news, it’s easy to conclude that humans are intolerant by nature. What makes one society seem as if it’s more tolerant than another is its threshold of accepting differences. Some accept differences in skin color but reject different faiths. Some are more accommodating of sexual orientations than ethnicities, or vice versa.

Each society draws the boundaries of its accommodation and sets limits to its threshold of acceptance. But standing on this fine line — that separates accepting a different set of beliefs or rejecting it on the grounds that it’s too alien from the norm or dismissing it altogether because it’s harmful — is the will to integrate all members in society.

The full article can be found here.

Those evil evil players

“Please correct news regarding Mohamed Talaat, national team player. The writing on the t-shirt isn’t remotely related to Hebrew. It’s Japanese, written in Katakana letters. The ad is for the Coca Cola Company.”

Talaat in the infamous Coca Cola ad. -From Gemyhoood's twitpic.

Talaat in the infamous Coca Cola ad. -From Gemyhoood's twitpic.

I received this email on Thursday morning from Mr. Essam Galal, who identified himself as a Japanese-language translator and tour guide. He also works for Japanese TV in Cairo. Sent to a number of journalists, the email is a response to the media campaign that targeted Talaat, following Egypt’s loss to Costa Rica on Tuesday in the U20 World Cup round of 16.

Many blogs, forums, and online commentators have already echoed what Galal said: The writing isn’t in Hebrew, ignoramuses; it’s Japanese.

Yet the calls seem to be falling on deaf ears. Obviously, the war is on.

The ad has been running since before the tournament started, but it was only after Egypt lost to Costa Rica, crashing out of the World Cup, that the campaign to vilify Talaat found a place in the media.

We lost on Oct. 6, and on Oct. 7, Al-Haya Al-Youm was already running a segment on it.

Ahh, we lost because Talaat was wearing a t-shirt with Hebrew inscriptions. Of course, what else? Silly me, I thought we lost because of grave defensive errors and the inability of the technical staff to shuffle the formation in accordance with the Costa Rican team’s.

Like what happened after the senior team lost to the United States in the Confederations Cup, accusing them of bringing prostitutes to their hotel rooms on the night before the game (based on a tabloid report), now the junior team must face the same fate.

Like the senior team in June in South Africa, the U20 team played really bad on Oct. 6 in Cairo. I was at the stadium and it was frustrating to see them display such below-par performance.

But that’s it. Nothing more.

They lost because they played bad, not because they are degenerate or evil. Not because they are spies, sellouts, or whatever this campaign is trying to suggest.

There is no need to follow the trend of finding a non-football related issue to vilify the players through. There’s a lot to criticize in their performance on the pitch, and focusing on that would help them get on the right track.

But crying like five-year-olds who didn’t get their ice cream doesn’t help anyone. Fans at the stadium expressed their frustration and disappointment by throwing water bottles on the pitch after the game, a negative point in assessing Egypt’s organization of the tournament. So not only did our national team lose, but Egypt as an organizer could be in trouble as well.

The same destructive attitude is what is fueling the campaign against Talaat. It’s a reminder of what Amr Adib did with the senior team, holding a printout of a South African tabloid as proof of how the players’ “debauchery” was responsible for Egypt’s loss. The tabloid ran an apology to the Egyptian team later on and Adib half-heartedly followed suit.

Frustration is never an excuse for smear campaigns.

The Coca Cola ad:

RIP Mike Fowler

Reading the Mike Fowler obit in the Miami Herald was http://www.miamiherald.com/511/story/1229659.html saddening and heartbreaking. In an email circulating on Facebook among Fowler’s former students in Egypt, many described in detail his impact on their lives, their careers and their view of and approach to journalism and media.

Fowler, or Michael Owen Fowler, taught reporting/writing and media ethics and law at the American University in Cairo. Many of his students, me included, still remember discussions we had with him on the line between the legality and the morality of the profession, the difference between what’s ethical and what’s legal.

A staunch defender of copyrights (at a time when the word was still an ambiguous term and before AUC established its strict anti-plagiarism rules), he was our go-to man at the student paper whenever we wrote a story about copyrights. I remember the editor of the paper telling a reporter to go ask him a few questions about the issue and take a photo half way through the interview. A picture of him waving his hands in the air in the middle of a heated discussion provided interesting visual for what would have been a visually-boring story. But it also conveyed his devotion to issues he was passionate about.

He spoke to us of his dismay with the commercialization of journalism, something he said partially pushed him to go back to school to study law. And in Egypt, we benefited from his experiences in both professions: journalism and law.

He was the first professor I met at the mass communications and journalism department of AUC. I kept postponing the required course of media ethics and law until I found an opening at the class he taught. And even before I took the class, I was always running to his office for advice. Our discussions on how long/hard a reporter should pursue sources to get their response to allegations made against them before publishing a controversial story guide my decisions as a journalist to this very day.

Many of my former classmates have similar stories.

I’m sure many of his students around the world have similar stories too, because Egypt was only one stop in his journey. He trained journalists in all continents, starting from the US and going through India, Bulgaria, Rwanda, Afghanistan, and Cambodia.

The obit in the Miami Herald, which Fowler worked for at one point in his career, quoted Miami political consultant Keith Donner as saying, “Mike was this mixture of Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene … He was a tall, hulking guy — about 6-foot-5 — with a great wit and tremendous intellect.

“He was the coolest guy in a very cool profession.”

We all knew that. And that why it was saddening to realize that many of us hadn’t spoken to Fowler since he left AUC. We only knew about his death over a month later. We lost touch with him even though we are aware of his impact on our lives. We never got a chance, or rather didn’t give ourselves the chance, to go back and thank him.

There are many professors that had a great impact on my life, some I don’t know even how to reach now. It’s not like I’m doing a great job staying in touch with those who still live in Egypt. But to all of them, if you stumble on this post one day: Thank you and sorry if I don’t get a chance to tell you how much I appreciate the knowledge and advice you passed on to me.

— Fowler is survived by his wife, journalist Susan Postlewaite, and his daughter Kim. My condolences to both of them.

Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures of Fowler, but here’s a link to one I found online:  http://knight.icfj.org/Portals/0/Blog/Files/1447/8880/fowler%20and%20chumno.jpg

The Judas of the big conspiracy

What the hell?

That was my most used phrase last week as I read one editorial after the other detailing the big Zionist, Jewish and Western conspiracy that Farouk Hosni fell victim to.

Words like Judas and Trojan Horse were thrown with abundance (wink wink Gomhuria) and the proponents of the conspiracy theory have never been so visible and outspoken. I don’t think many of these loud voices were that generous with use of “the Zionist Conspiracy” argument during the Israeli offensive on Gaza in December 08/January 09.

I don’t believe Hosni represented the Arab and Muslim world by his candidacy for the UNESCO director-general, but his reaction to the loss is unfortunately embarrassing us all. And by “all” I specifically mean Egyptians. He is merely showing the world that we are sore losers.

Diplomatically speaking, his reaction is inappropriate. Scandalous, even if his argument is true or has some element of validity to it.

In sports, where the usually-young athletes are physically and psychologically stressed and their reactions are often involuntary reflexes, such tantrums are not tolerated. Serena Williams lost dearly for breaking her racket in anger and frustration. I just saw the coach of Egypt’s volleyball team warned for silently pointing that the ball was outside the line. A silent, polite and reflexive gesture was considered a violation of sportsmanship.

Diplomacy on the other hand calls for something more refined than sportsmanship. Politics in itself isn’t refined, but its practitioners on the international scene are called diplomats. The word diplomatic is defined as tactful: “showing tact and skill in dealing with people”. Its synonyms include subtle, suave, discreet and cautious. Hosni only demonstrated such traits right after the results were announced by warmly congratulating his opponent Irina Bokova. But that was the end of it and his statements afterwards were anything but diplomatic. My friend’s description of him as a “loose canon” sounds more viable every day.

Deconstructing the conspiracy

I started by saying “even if his argument is true” his reaction wouldn’t haven been justifiable. The thing is, it’s not true. The many arguments that were used to validate the conspiracy theory or the Judas-like betrayal are, for the most part, baseless.

First of all, the accusation that the US was working secretly against Hosni. There was nothing secret about it. The US never supported the Egyptian candidate. So it’s perfectly normal for the US to campaign for another candidate.

Second, Hosni and the press condemned the lobbying that marked the elections. Hmmm… Isn’t this what elections are all about? Campaigning and lobbying for your preferred candidate?? And wasn’t this what Egypt did to get Hosni the 22 votes of the first round? Over the past year, all we were hearing about was Hosni securing the African votes, promised the Arab vote, President Mubarak convincing the Israeli Prime Minister not to officially object to Hosni’s candidacy, etc. Even during last week’s voting, Mubarak was directly involved in lobbying, calling heads of states to secure the culture minister the handful of votes that would guarantee his success.

Third, the politicization accusation. Who ever said that UNESCO wasn’t politicized? It’s a cultural organization, yes. But it’s run by politicians. It’s this politicization that led Egypt to initially support the Saudi candidate in the UNESCO elections in 1999 instead of the Egyptian. It’s the same politicization that allowed for the pro-Hosni camp to use the argument that Hosni would have been the first Arab head of UNESCO in order to rally more support.

Maybe we need to play a better political game, and like some analysts have noted, make it more dependent on substance rather than posturing.

Fourth, the great conspiracy of candidates withdrawing for the sole reason of giving the votes they got to the Bulgarian Irina Bokova. Well, Algeria had a candidate and he too withdrew. Can we safely say that he did that for Bokova? How would Hosni react to statements accusing him of “conspiring” with the Algerian candidate Mohamed Bedjaoui to get the majority vote?

Fifth, the “betrayal”. Since Hosni and Bokovo got 29 votes each in the fourth round, a fifth was imminent. One of them was bound to lose one or two votes to the other. It was a crucial time and a suave game: each was trying to get the swing votes and to further guarantee the secure ones. And in this game Bokova won by taking two of Hosni’s votes. He couldn’t get any of hers. Fair game.

It wasn’t the Judas betrayal he portrayed it to be. It was a simple game of politics that we played, but lost, with great results. Who would ever thought that the Egyptian candidate, with almost a single entry on his CV (he was doing the same job for the past 22 years, wasn’t he), would be the fierce competitor for the Bulgarian, who, like the rest of the candidates, had an elaborate resume.

But instead of losing honorably and priding himself in the impressive and surprising results he achieved, Hosni threw a media tantrum. He took all lobbying for his opponents personally and tried to give it a universal context of a clash of civilization. The North against the South. The West against Islam. The West against Arabs.

This brings us to the sixth and final point. The media is rallying the masses behind Hosni by selling them the false “he lost because he was an Arab” argument. Here, both Hosni and his supporters are misusing the Arab (or Islam) vs. the West debate to exude a larger-than-life struggle to his loss. Anyone who dares to challenge this is automatically labeled unpatriotic. Where was this patriotism when Ismail Serageldin was running for the same post 10 years ago? According to his website, his “candidacy was ultimately put forward by the Governments of Burkina Faso and the Netherlands [a Western, European Country], and supported by the Governments of Sweden and Egypt, and the OAU.” Egypt had initially opted for a unified Arab stance behind the Saudi candidate at the time. Or is patriotism exclusive to loyal ministers?

Hosni’s statements and those who are echoing and validating his views are making us all look like whiny sore losers.

Enough embarrassments already.